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Giovanni Battista PERGOLESI (1710 - 1736) (attr): Septem verba a Christo in cruce moriente prolata

Sophie Karthäuser, soprano; Christophe Dumaux, alto; Julien Behr, tenor; Konstantin Wolff, bass
Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin
Dir: René Jacobs

rec: August 2012, Berlin, Teldex Studio
Harmonia mundi - HMC 902155 (© 2013) (80'30")
Liner-notes: E/D/F; lyrics - translations: E/D/F
Cover & track-list

Erwin Wieringa, Miroslav Rovenský, horn; Ute Hartwich, trumpet; Bernhard Forck, Erik Dorset, Kerstin Erben, Uta Peters, Dörte Wetzel, Barbara Halfter, Thomas Graewe, violin; Sabine Fehlandt, Anja Graewel, viola; Kathrin Sutor, Andreas Voss, cello; Michael Neuhaus, double bass; Mara Galassi, harp; Shizuko Noiri, lute; Andreas Küppers, harpsichord, organ

Music for Passiontide represents an important part of the sacred repertoire written during the renaissance and baroque periods. Some texts were frequently set: the Stabat mater, the Lamentations of Jeremiae, sometimes connected to the Tenebrae Responsories, and the records of Jesus' Passion in the four Gospels. In the latter - with the exception of St Matthew - we find the seven words which Jesus spoke at the Cross. These are the subject of the work which is recorded on the present disc.

The best-known settings of the seven words from the Cross are those by Heinrich Schütz (1657) and Joseph Haydn (1795/96). The latter work exists in four different versions: the vocal score is the latest and was printed in 1801. In the foreword the reader is informed about the way the work came into existence. It was originally conceived as a series of sonatas for orchestra which were to illustrate Jesus' words from the Cross. It was performed at Cadiz during a celebration on Good Friday which was part of a tradition which had its roots in Latin America. It is interesting to note that the initiative to commission Haydn to write a work to be performed during this celebration was the canon of Cadiz who was the son of a noble family from the Vice-regency of New Spain (today Mexico). It was held between noon and three o'clock in the afternoon, and was called Devoción de las tres horas de la agonía de Cristo. It is possible that the present work was also written for such an occasion.

There are clearly parallels between Haydn's original setting and the context in which it was performed on the one hand and this work on the other. In Cadiz the bishop pronounced one of the words from the Cross and then delivered a commentary on it. The Septem verba a Christo is a cycle of seven cantatas. Each of them begins with a word from the Cross which is sung by the bass - without instrumental accompaniment - who represents Christ. He then delivers his own commentary in the form of an aria, sometimes preceded by a recitative. Then follows another aria - again sometimes preceded by a recitative - for soprano, alto or tenor, representing the Soul. Those arias are replies to Christ's comments. Let us look at the first cantata. It begins with the first word from the Cross: "Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do". Christ then sings in his recitative: "Come hither, my disciples, hasten to your master, and listen attentively to the teachings I set forth from atop this high cross. Behold, I teach you to love those who do not love you, and to do good to them who do evil to you. Forgive. And I do not teach you this only in fine-sounding words; I myself set you an example stronger than any other. Forgive." The Soul then answers in an aria: "What you command, almighty Lord, what you teach, most learned Master, see, I do it joyfully. (...) Kneeling at your feet, I renounce my old hatreds." He concludes: "But I ask a favour of you: Grant me too your pardon. Forgive."

The text sometimes has an allegorical meaning. The second part of the third word from the Cross (Cantata III) - "Woman, behold thy son! Behold thy mother!" - is addressed to John, one of Jesus' disciples. It is interpreted allegorically in the aria of the Soul: "What you command, Lord, most sweet Jesus, I will accomplish: to love Mary and take care of her like my mother is my resolve". Thus the words spoken to John become part of the veneration of Mary, as the Soul closes: "Mary, you are henceforth my hope, you are all my life, as long as I exist".

The basic structure of the seven cantatas is the same, but there are some differences: three comprise only two arias, three have an additional recitative, all part of the role of Christ, and in one cantata both Christ and the Soul have a recitative. The arias have a dacapo structure; in this recording some repeats are cut down, and the dacapo of the aria 'Dilecta genitrix' in Cantata III is completely omitted. In his liner-notes Jacobs refers to indications in one of the manuscripts which suggest that the repeats were not always performed. His decisions in this department are mostly not specified which makes it impossible to gain a complete picture of how the arias are structured. It needs to be noted that some B parts are divided into several stanzas.

The instrumental score is also interesting, especially because of various obbligato parts in arias. The aria 'Latronem hunc aspicite' (Cantata II) includes a part for harp, the B section of 'Dilecta genitrix' (Cantata III) a violin part, the horn plays solo in 'In tuum, Pater, gremium' (Cantata VII), the cello in 'Huc advolate mortales' (Cantata VI), and in the aria 'Huc oculos' (Cantata IV) we hear a trumpet playing with a mute. In this recording some arias are preceded by short solos on lute, harpsichord or organ - the latter with an additional drum roll - but these seem the result of decisions by René Jacobs rather than of indications in the score. In the booklet he explains the symbolic meaning of the various instruments in regard to the text. He also suggests that the fact that in Cantata II the part of Christ is scored for tenor could have a symbolic meaning and could be inspired by the text of the second word from the Cross: "Verily I say unto thee, today shalt thou be with me in paradise". "In Bach's Actus tragicus, too, it is a bass voice, rising into the tenor range, that sings: "Heute wirst du mit mir im Paradies sein" (Today thou shalt with me in Paradise)".

The composition recorded here was not discovered recently. It was found in two manuscripts as early as 1930, and since then scholars have debated its authenticity. Recently two further manuscripts were discovered. It has been published, and the editor, Reinhard Fehling, is convinced that Pergolesi is indeed the author. René Jacobs supports this claim, but both he and Fehling emphasize that this work's value does not depend on whether Pergolesi actually wrote it. I share this judgement: there is no reason to ignore a composition because it was not written by a famous composer. The question whether Pergolesi indeed wrote it will probably never be definitively answered, but it should be part of the repertoire for Passiontide anyway.

The composer must have been experienced in opera because the arias are quite operatic, and include some coloratura and cadenzas. There is much expression, not so much in the depiction of single words, but rather in the affetti which expose the content of arias or phrases. These are not only exposed in the vocal parts but in the instrumental score as well, and that goes especially for the obbligato parts. As one would expect the last cantata has something special to offer, following the last word from the Cross: "Father, into thy hands I commend my spirit". In the aria of Christ the orchestra plays its final chord, and then the bass sings, unaccompanied: "Emitto" (I give up [my spirit]). The last aria (of the Soul) ends with orchestral chords, played piano - the music just fades away. A most impressive ending of this intriguing composition.

This is the first recording, but it is to be hoped that it will receive some competition in the near future. That can only help to increase its fame, but this is also an indication that I am not totally satisfied with the performance. I am often not very impressed by Jacobs' choice of singers and that is not any different here. All of them use too much vibrato which is not nice to hear and is also historically untenable. Konstantin Wolff has the most important role, and I needed some time to get used to his voice. I still don't like it very much - which is a matter of personal taste - but after listening to this recording a second time I turned more positive on his performance. It doesn't lack expression, and some arias are even quite moving, but even so I would have preferred a different type of voice. And the words from the Cross should have been sung more firmly. Christophe Dumaux's is another voice I don't appreciate very much. It is a bit sharp-edged and harsh, and that seems rather out of place in a work like this. Sophie Karthäuser is operatic, but in a rather wrong way, with a wide vibrato which is not appropriate here. More attention should have been given to the text. Julien Behr's role is limited, but he has a pleasant voice. Unfortunately he doesn't keep his vibrato in check either. The orchestra and the performers of the obbligato parts are excellent, as one may expect from the Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin.

On balance, the interpretation may not be ideal, but this work deserves the full attention of anyone who loves vocal baroque music. It is a highly valuable addition to the repertoire for Passiontide.

Johan van Veen (© 2014)

Relevant links:

Julien Behr
Konstantin Wolff
Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin

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